Tag Archives: landscape

Druidry, walking, and not walking

Walking is my primary mode of transport and is also how I engage with the natural world and the seasons. It’s a major part of how I exercise, and a key strategy for managing my mental health. As a consequence, not being able to walk is a bit of a disaster. There’s been a lot of that this year, and in the last six weeks or so it has been a massive problem.

Usually the limits on my walking come from pain, stiffness and lack of energy. I’m used to having days when I can’t do much, and fitting what I need to do around what’s possible. However, I’ve had a bout of very low blood pressure (for reasons) and it’s made walking really hard. I haven’t been able to get up hills, I’ve been able to manage twenty minutes at most, and I’ve felt awful. I’m aware that for a lot of people, twenty minutes would be a good amount of walking, but with the role walking plays in my life, not being able to walk for a few hours at a time is a real problem.

It’s meant I’ve had very little access to the landscape. Places I find spiritually nourishing – especially the hilltops – have been unavailable to me. If I had a garden, I could develop a spiritually nourishing outdoors space closer to home – but currently I can’t do that.

I’m lucky in that the underlying causes of this problem have been dealt with, and I should be able to recover and rebuild my strength and stamina. Not everyone who has a bodily crisis gets to do that afterwards. Many people live with sorely limiting conditions.

This experience has taught me that there is nothing I can do inside my flat that does for me what getting outside for long hours at a time does for me. My Druidry is so very much about my relationship with my immediate landscape. Much of the time that’s quite an understated presence – I do think about my connection with land and spirits of place whenever I am out, but that’s often so normal to me that in some ways I don’t notice it. Absence is a great teacher, and what I’ve not been able to do has taught me about what I need to do.

There’s an interesting balance around internalising things and losing sight of them. With any spiritual practice, you want to embed it so deeply in your life that it is your life. But when you do that you can stop noticing that it’s there, which is problematic. This in turn brings me to consider the usefulness of deliberate spiritual action for reminding us of our spiritual lives, and how necessary it may be to have things that aren’t so deeply embedded that they become invisible. This might mean I need to make a labyrinth once I’m back in shape. That’s a good jolt out of everydayness.

I certainly need to look at what I can do with my Druidry that is real and immediate to me, and soul satisfying, and not so dependent on being able to walk for a couple of hours. Alongside this, I have a lot of practical work to do rebuilding body strength and stamina, getting my heart fitter again, and getting back up the hills. I’ve come to understand in recent years that taking care of my body is a necessary consideration for how I do my Druidry – my body is where I experience everything else, and if I don’t keep it well and fit, I can’t get out there and do anything else. I’m very glad to have at least some options around improving wellness and fitness.


Walking, stories and landscape

I experience the landscape around me in a way that is full of story. At this point, these stories are a mix of local folklore, history, personal experience and fiction.

If I walk from my home to the top of Selsley Hill, I go through a tunnel where I once had a rather magical encounter with a fox. I pass a corner where there was a slowworm one time. I walk past a community garden where I used to be involved. There is a pub, which has a few personal stories associated with it. Then I walk past the field where the were-aurochs first transformed in my Wherefore stories. I will tend to remember the first time going up over the grassy part of the hill and saying there was a chance we’d find orchids and then being blown away by how many orchids there were. There is a path where the bee orchids grow, and I remember who I’ve taken to see them in previous years. There is a signpost that gave me a strange experience once in the mist. Finally, there is the barrow, and all that I’ve done there. And all the other points in the landscape visible from the hilltop and all the stories that connect to those.

Each re-visit adds layers to the story of my relationship with this landscape. Over time, some of the personal experiences turn out to be more enduring than others. The fictional stories build alongside this.

Part of the reason my relationship with the land is like this, is that I walk. At walking speed, there is time for memories of a place to come to the surface. There is time to share a story or a bit of folklore. At walking speed, the landscape becomes much bigger because we have more time in it, and that allows room in all kinds of ways.

The car is a rather new thing in terms of human history. Our ancestors walked, for the greater part. There were no road signs. Finding your way through a landscape may well have been a matter of having a narrative map in your head. We know that some early mapping – like establishing the boundaries of a parish, was a narrative that you walked in order to reinforce it. If you can tell a walk as a story, you can teach it to someone who has never been there. Stories make a journey more entertaining and can help you keep going in rough conditions – I’ve certainly used them in that way. Stories help us place ourselves in the landscape – as individuals, as communities, as people with a tradition of being in the landscape.

I don’t have that unbroken lineage that traditional peoples have living in deeply storied landscapes. But, my people have been here a long time, and I have a feeling of rootedness. Most of what I have, I’ve put together for myself, from the local oral tradition, from folklore books, from history, and shared experience. This kind of relationship with a landscape is available to anyone, anywhere – sometimes you have to mostly work with your own material, but that’s fine. Every tradition starts somewhere.


Druidry and Rabbits

Rabbits are interestingly complicated from a Druid perspective. On one hand, they’re cute, fluffy mammals, and on the other, they could be the poster-creature for humans messing up.

We’ve been moving rabbits around the world for a long time. When exactly they came to the UK is uncertain – could have been the Romans, could have been the Normans. Certainly the Normans had to build warrens for them because apparently rabbits back then weren’t very tough at all! Old rabbit warrens in the landscape can easily be confused for other things. There’s an interesting pair near me that, in local legend, are supposedly mass graves for a smallpox hospital.

Rabbits in Australia have been an ecological disaster. They may be small and cute, but being in a landscape where they don’t belong has had a series impact on other species. Tree loss, soil erosion and loss of other plant species causes huge knock on effects.

Then we get myxomatosis – a virus that originated in South America and turns out to have hideous, crippling effects on rabbits, who die slow and painful deaths from it. I’ve heard a lot of stories about how it was deliberately brought into the UK to control rabbit populations – a horrible choice by any measure.

We move rabbits around so that we can eat them. We keep them as pets. We use the fur of Angora rabbits for clothing, but the treatment of those rabbits, is often appalling. The problems rabbits cause in the world stem from our human assumption that they are there for us to use in whatever way we see fit. When we colonise landscapes, our impact isn’t just about moving people in, and humans – especially white, European humans – have caused a lot of harm by deliberately and accidentally moving creatures to places where they do not belong.

Rabbits invite us to look at how we use power. They invite us to square up to a long history of ecological damage and arrogance. They are intimately tied up with colonial histories and the history of invasion. From a Druid perspective, they have much to tell us about what a lack of natural justice looks like, and what human hubris does in the world.


Landscape poetry

Marginal

 

Life is richest

At the margins.

Wood edge, field side

Light and shade.

Butterfly places

Flower haven

Alive with bees.

I eat wild herbs

Underripe blackberries

Spot small birds

Too fast for naming.

Happiest at the edges

Where wild lives

Cling to the unwanted

Land at the boundary.

Untamed, uncut, unfarmed

But not unloved.


Solitude, aloneness and landscape

I don’t need to be on my own to be lonely. Like many people, some of my loneliest experiences have been in the company of people where I have not felt I belonged.  I’m good at not belonging, and there aren’t that many people in whose company I find solace.

Solitude, on the other hand, has been something I’ve actively sought for much of my life. The peace to sit with my own thoughts, the freedom to be as I am with no reference to anyone else. Not being around people does not always cause me to feel lonely.

One of the things that lockdown clarified for me, is that I experience loneliness most intensely in relation to landscape. I don’t find wild, human-free landscapes lonely though. The kinds of wild landscapes other people might call bleak, barren or lonely, have never struck me that way. Expanses of land and sky give me a feeling of belonging, of being held and acceptable.

I am nothing to a hill. I find that immensely comforting. Skies do not judge. Trees do not want small talk. The landscape has little or no interest in me, but is also accepting of me. The loneliness of not being easy in human spaces is eased for me by being out under the sky. Finding the official guidelines when lockdown began were to only go outside for an hour each day was hell, and plunged me deep into depression. In the end I ignored what I was supposed to do, but walked at night and in the early dawn light so as to pose no risk to anyone else.

The loneliness that comes from being landscape starved is worse than anything I have ever felt about a shortage of people.

There are people I need. People I missed dreadfully when I couldn’t spend time with them in person. I know who they are now, and they know who they are, and some of those relationships have evolved of necessity. People I know it is safe to be emotionally honest with. People whose absence causes me the same kind of distress as not being out under the sky enough. There aren’t many of them.

I find the loneliness of being with people where I don’t belong is far harder to deal with in the short term than not having much contact with people outside my household. Over the long term, the absence of people I care about has been painful, but the absence of people generally has been fine, and in many ways a blessing.


Soul Land – a review

Soul Land by Natalia Clarke is a love letter to a landscape. It was a joy for me reading someone else’s poetry in this vein – having done something similar with a poetry collection of my own called Mapping the Contours.

Natalia is in love with Scotland, and her poems are passionate expressions of a profound love affair with place. The writing is generous, sensuous, wholehearted.  These are bardic braise poems directed at place rather than person, and I greatly enjoyed reading them.

I recommend this collection primarily for the pleasure of reading it. However, for anyone on the bard path wondering about writing love songs, love letters, and romances directed towards the non-human, this is a lovely example. For the person who feels alienated and craves relationship with the land, this collection may help you on your way.

To be a body in a landscape. To be alive and keenly feeling and in relationship with all that is around you is an exquisite thing. For me, it is a key part of the Druid path. I’m painfully aware though that many people do not have that grounding love in their lives. Alienation from land, landscape and a sense of place is a modern illness, and reading and writing can be one way back into the land. Poems can be maps, and guides to help us heal and to rebuild the relationships that should always have been ours.

More about the book here – https://rawnaturespirit.com/e-guide/


Druidry of place

This post was inspired by Ryan Cronin’s recent post about Druidry which you can, and should read – https://wrycrow.com/2020/05/10/druidry-of-the-real/

It got my thinking about what is unique about where I am and how I do things. The landscape here certainly does have an impact on my Druidry. One of the reasons I don’t do community ritual any more is that there is nowhere in easy walking distance where that would make sense. The wilder places are too windy, ritual shouting doesn’t do it for me. The woodlands are on slopes – again this doesn’t work well for a circle. The flatter outside places are really public, so that doesn’t work.

This has led me towards making walking and sitting out the heart of my Druidry. I make and walk labyrinths, and this is in no small part because I have space where I feel comfortable doing that. It’s something I can do in a park without feeling uneasy about other people. I managed to get one in before lockdown, but it is something I have missed doing.

Walking is affected by how the paths change through the year – where is accessible in winter, in mud or icy conditions. Where is sheltered enough from the sun for summer walking. Which paths flood in heavy rain, which ones feel unsafe in high winds.

One of the curious features of the valleys around Stroud is that where you are has a big impact on how you experience the shape of the day. The hills mean that twilight settles in some places before the sun sets in others. Dawn comes earlier on the hilltops than it does in the secluded valleys. Spring starts earlier some places than others, and across a distance of just a few miles there are all kinds of microclimates. Living here makes it hard to have a single coherent narrative about time and the seasons. I am more plural for living in this landscape.

There’s no grain in the valleys, so either I have to go out to where the grain is, or my sense of the summer grain festivals is impacted by this. We do have sheep and lambs, so my Imbolc is shaped by encountering them. We do have an abundance of hawthorn flowers and bluebells for Beltane.

On top of that, we have a local events calendar which intersects with my personal calendar. My wheel of the year has a book festival, folk festival, a theatre festival and a wassail in it, reliably, and some of the other regular events impact on me as well. Culture should be place specific.


Owl Drunk

We walked towards the full moon. On the hill, the barrow stretched out, attractive, as though a barrow on the night of the full moon would be an excellent place to lie down and sleep. As though the barrow itself was calling, inviting. I declined politely, only to be almost lost, facing what looked like a high wall. The hill can be tricksy, it has played with my perceptions before. I found the signpost that once, in fog, I mistook for a tower. I found the right path, and we made our way to the wood.

I prefer walking without a lamp, but a leafy wood is a dark place, even under the full moon. Walking by torchlight feels like moving but so little changes that it also doesn’t feel like moving. It becomes unreal quickly. Dreamlike. You walk based on the faith that your body is indeed going somewhere, but the mind sits oddly in the flesh, closer to dreaming than waking.

The woods were full of owls, calling. The undergrowth alongside the path was full of sound, alive with small, busy presences. We saw one of them. Larger creatures moved in the darkness – badger most likely. There were many bats and some of them flew close in front of us through the small circle of light.

Just as the sky was growing pale, we arrived at a local beauty spot and stopped to drink tea and look at the moon. Larks were singing long before any other bird. Here, we had an encounter with a local police officer, who had been checking the site and wanted to make sure we were ok and not intending to walk along the road – we assured her that we had come through the woods and would be safe.

We drank green tea under the full moon, raised a toast to someone we thought would appreciate that, and wished him well. And wished him safely with us.

We walked home towards the rising sun, with the woods slowly filling with colour. Bluebells, wild garlic, wood anemone, dog’s mercury, new beach leaves. On the hill, cowslips, early purple orchids and an extravagance of lark song. Owls were singing along with the dawn chorus and I thought I heard the lone voice of a curlew.

Sleep deprived, giddy, drunk on owl song, intoxicated by the dawn chorus, with a head full of hilltop, we came home. The town was swathed in mist, and the feeling of having walked in a magical realm was with is to the end.


In need of wildness

I was struggling long before lockdown with the need for wildness. I live in a beautiful part of the world, but the car noise, the careless walkers who leave bags of poo in their wake, the cyclists who treat ancient monuments as obstacles and things of that ilk had been getting to me for some time. I craved a landscape with fewer people in it, and more wild things.

Then we hit lockdown and everything got worse. The main walking and cycling routes close to my home are busier than ever in the day. Not wanting to add to that and finding it stressful, I moved to twilight walking, but as it has got warmer, ever more people are about at the end of the day. I used to spend hours walking, and the loss of time in the landscape has left me depressed and disconnected. On top of that, poor circulation and/or low blood pressure have caused me sleeping problems.

This week I decided to make some radical changes. So, rather than getting online when I wake up in the early hours, I got my walking boots on. Tom and I went out. The first time, we saw no humans. The second time we ran into a couple of people, but compared to how many folk there are out in the day, it was nothing. Narrow paths I would not have risked in the daylight became totally socially distanced. The world that I had lost opened up to me again.

I came home with the dawn chorus, euphoric. I came home able to sleep, both times, which means my sleeping has radically improved, so my head feels clearer. A tension is easing out of my body, that had come from feeling disconnected from the land. With more time outside and better access to the wild, I am more myself again and lockdown is a good deal more bearable.

There is also more wildness at night – foxes and hedgehogs, owls and others. The dawn is full of birds, and there are lots of wildflowers to appreciate as the sun comes up. With almost no other people out there, the landscape seems wilder. In darkness, familiar places become less so – there’s a lot I can work with here.

We don’t have a garden, so an hour of exercise might be considered the proper amount of outside time we can have in a day. Although guidance around how long a person can be out for varies. An hour is not enough for my mental health. I can’t walk as far as I need to in that time and it has really taken a toll on me. But if we set out in the night and see no one, I can’t see it matters how long we walk for.

I’ll keep doing this long after lockdown – walking to meet the dawn has changed my relationship with the place I live. I feel re-enchanted. Being liberated from the presence of people I have no interest in seeing is a great relief to me. In the silence, with the wild things and a most excellent walking companion, I no longer feel so lost.


Druidry and Trees

We know from the Romans that ancient Druids worshipped in Groves. While much Roman information may be dodgy propaganda, it’s hard to see what use this would serve as an invention, so I am inclined to go with it. There are reasons to think that the word ‘druid’ may be connected to ancient words for ‘oak’. We also have later things – particularly the tree version of ogham script, the poem The Battle of the Trees and Irish laws about trees that people turn to for the relationship between Druids and trees. It’s a bit speculative, but reasonable to assume that in some way, Druids were involved with trees.

There are lots of resources online for this sort of thing, if you are curious, I suggest looking around.

I feel very strongly that trees should, as far as possible, be part of the life of the modern Druid. That can take many forms, so this won’t be an exhaustive list.

Spending time in woodland to commune directly with trees. Opening up to trees as direct spiritual teachers.

Tree protection – woodlands, ancient woodlands and urban trees alike all need speaking up for. We need our trees and so many are under constant threat in the name of ‘development’.

Planting trees – urban tree planting is especially important and there’s less scope for messing up an existing eco-system through ignorance. We also need orchards, many of our historical orchards have been destroyed and we import a lot of fruit. Fruit trees are good for bees and other insects, so planting fruit trees gets a lot done.

We need more attention to trees in relation to water and flooding. Trees slow the movement of water and reduce runoff. Alders and willows are good in a wetland context, and wetlands are good at taking up carbon. Beavers and trees combine well to create natural water management systems that create and support complex eco-systems.

We need to think about trees in terms of our relationships with other countries. Rainforests are cut down to answer the desires of northern hemisphere consumers. We have to change this.

We need to think about how trees relate to the farmed landscape. Where agribusiness dominates, trees and hedges disappear in favour of being able to use large machinery. The food we eat exists in relationship to the landscape, and the presence or absence of trees. How much impact you can have on this may depend largely on your spending power, but it is something to be alert to.

Many of our relationships with trees are invisible to us. When you get on a train, the tree felling habits of the rail company are part of your relationship with trees. When woodland is cut down to make your toilet paper, that’s part of your relationship with trees. When landscapes are managed for the benefits of the few, that impacts on your relationship with trees. If you consider a spiritual relationship with trees to be part of your path, then all of these things need your care and attention.